Ranking the Preseason Hoops Tournaments

As he entered Michigan State's Breslin Center sitting atop a cannon, Tom Izzo must have wondered how he would top this next year. Izzo has become famous for kicking off the Spartans' seasons at Midnight Madness with attention-grabbing entrances, and his implied shooting from a cannon certainly met that criterion.*

(* Yes, I know once the lights went out, it wasn't Izzo who was shot from the cannon. Now had Les Miles entered on that cannon…)

But there's something symbolic about Izzo making such a flashy entrance at an event few outside of East Lansing even knew was going on. Unlike other sports, college basketball's beginning creeps up on us quietly and calmly says, "Hey." Heck, I only saw the clip of Izzo while watching college football the following day.

That's college basketball's problem across the board. No other major sport has so anonymous an opening. For the sport with the most glorious crescendo to its finish, college basketball opens like a conductor-less orchestra with each member starting a different song intermittently.

Unlike the dog days of August that precede college and professional football, college basketball's opening days are obscured by the noise of mid-season football. And unlike the bunting-adorned, sun-coaxing spectacles of Major League Baseball's opening day, college hoops teams open their seasons across a wide range of days and settings.

This low profile is really a shame, because the first few weeks of college basketball are unrivaled by any other sport. Teams engage in appetizer-sized tournaments, in many cases featuring glamorous matchups of elite programs. It's an early season hint at the big tournament to come.

However, as organizers have perfected a business model, tournaments have proliferated like bowl games, and just like bowl season, the college basketball tournament season has become gluttonously dilute. With so many classics and tip-offs on the calendar, here is a quick guide to the ones we should most look forward to this year.

5. Cancun Challenge (Key teams: West Virginia, Wisconsin; Semifinals begin November 26) Let's be honest: many of these tournaments are just excuses for some cold weather fan bases to travel somewhere warm. With a field that includes the Mountaineers, Badgers, Saint Louis, and Bowling Green, this seems like such an excuse. The Cancun Challenge is a much better draw for these fan bases than Battle at Buffalo, but a little more SPF 50-intensive.

4. Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Key teams: Louisville, North Carolina; Semifinals begin November 23) Many of these tournaments are brutally, horribly, spinning-Bankrupt-after-buying-the-last-vowel rigged. The Hall of Fame Tip-Off, for example, nominally includes eight teams, four of which will play their first "tournament" game on the road at one of the other four team's campus. Maybe not an even playing field, but fair enough, right?

Not quite. You see, the four host teams all advance into the semifinals in Connecticut automatically. Those campus site games are only part of the tournament in name.

Okay, but those four teams at least will make up a balanced mini-tournament, no? Well, the identities of two of those teams are North Carolina and Louisville, and the identities of the other two are Richmond and Fairfield. And wouldn't you know it, the Heels and Cardinals didn't draw each other in the semifinals.

So basically, this is an intriguing neutral floor game between defending champ Louisville and North Carolina making-believe that it is an eight-team, multi-site tournament.

3. Maui Invitational (Key teams: Syracuse, Baylor, Gonzaga, and of course, Chaminade; Quarterfinals begin November 25) Usually the most prestigious of the preseason tournaments, this year's Maui Invitational is a little light on glamour, but still seven deep in quality teams. It's held in the smallest gym most of these teams will ever play in (including practice), and the b-roll of the island will look particularly spectacular for the rest of us in late November.

It slides a little in these rankings because, apparently, there is something called "Maui on the Mainland" for a quartet of lesser teams. Certainly, by invoking the Maui name, this is at least being held in Southern California or somewhere on the west coast, right? How about Conway, South Carolina, the home of host participant Coastal Carolina. I don't get it either.

2. NIT Season Tip-Off (Key Teams: Duke, Arizona; Semifinals begin November 27) The nation's other most-anticipated freshman, Jabari Parker, will likely square off against the Wildcats and their top recruit, Aaron Gordon.

Duke makes a lot of appearances in the New York metro area, and it's always explained that it is for a) recruiting, or b) alumni. Does this really matter? Will the Wall Street Blue Devils donate more because Coach K makes an appearance in Madison Square Garden or the Barclay's Center every few years? Either way, Devils and Cats should provide one of the early season's best games in—say it with me—the World's Most Famous Arena.

1. Battle 4 Atlantis (Key Teams: Kansas, Kansas, Tennessee, Villanova, and Kansas; Elimination rounds begin November 28) The Jayhawks' November 28 tilt with Wake Forest in the Bahamas will be one of our first looks at freshman Andrew Wiggins against live competition (sorry, Towson). Bonus points for scoring a couple of intriguing breakout candidates in Tennessee and Villanova to pair with the Wiggins show; negative points for the "4" confusingly jammed into the name.

Honorable Mention

Keightley Classic (Key Team: Kentucky; First game is November 14) This is technically not a tournament, but a round robin that leverages the preseason tournament scheduling rules, but with five of the top dozen incoming freshmen, much of the country will be fascinated to see how this version of John Calipari's shuffled deck of talent turns out. We saw it go well in a dominating national championship two seasons ago, and we saw it crash and burn into the NIT last year. And speaking of that NIT, who is Kentucky's first draw in the Keightley Classic? Those very same Robert Morris Colonials that ended the Cats 2013 postseason.

The Wooden Legacy (Key Teams: Marquette, Miami, Creighton; Elimination rounds begin November 28) Most eyes will be on the Blue Jays' Doug McDermott, who is not only perhaps the country's best returning player, but also a bonus contestant on Saturday Night Live's "Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney?" quiz show sketch. I guess the prospect of a Marquette-Miami 2013 Sweet 16 rematch might also be worth some people's attention.

Old Spice Classic (Key Teams: Butler, Memphis, Oklahoma State; Quarterfinals begin November 28) As we debate bubble teams every March, we inevitably see "Quality wins" on borderline teams' resumes and foggily try to remember when the seventh team out of the Big Ten beat the fourth team out of the Big 12. It's usually in these kinds of tournaments, filled with eight competitive and relatively even teams, each capable of being a nice feather in someone's cap four months down the road.

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